(Quick aside before real review. It has been a long damn time since I’ve done a video game review. The last game I reviewed was (unless you count my failed attempted Review in Progress for Persona 4) back in October of last year and it was El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Considering how anally I reviewed every bit of pop culture I consumed up until about two months ago when I finally pulled the cord on TV, this means I haven’t beaten a game since then. That’s sad. However, it’s par for the course for me because I have a bad history of not beating video games that I start. Especially RPGs [which are weirdly my favorite genre despite me rarely beating them)] because I just don’t have the attention span to stick with a game for 40-80 hours. I started this particularly playthrough of Mass Effect 2 on August 6th, and I put about 40 hours into the game. I’d beaten it before on the PC [more on that later and why this is strictly a review of the PS3 port] so I’m really surprised I actually stuck with it. Hopefully this is a sign of me actually maturing and being able to finish things I start. One can dream.)
I can remember in the old days of Game Informer that they used to post a separate review for each console’s version of a game. There were such vast differences between the PS2, XBox, and Gamecube that it was mandatory because the games simply weren’t going to be the same (and multi-console releases weren’t the overwhelming rule of the day at the time). They’ve stopped doing that and generally only include a minor aside saying whether one version of a game suffers in the porting. I bring this up first and foremost in my review of Bioware’s science fiction opus, Mass Effect 2, because having played the game both on the PC and the PS3, I can easily say that the PS3 version of the game is one of the worst port jobs that I’ve ever seen in my entire life to the point that it nearly ruined one of the greatest RPGs of this generation of gaming from the undisputed masters of the Western RPG.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise (or who were PS3 owners that didn’t have access to the first game when it was released only on the XBox 360 and PC), the Mass Effect universe is an intricately crafted and indescribably ambitious effort by Bioware to create an epic science fiction saga in the vein of Star Wars or the new Battlestar Galactica. Implementing player decisions over the course of three video games (the third was released this spring and was the impetus for me to go back and beat the second game on the PS3 since that was the system I bought the third game on for complicated reasons), Mass Effect is an experiment in maintaining player choice at a grand and meaningful scale over multiple titles, and it’s a huge success. Only one other game (Heavy Rain) has ever made me weigh all of my choices with so much painful attention or punch me in the gut so strongly with real consequences for the things I’ve done.
This game is like two and a half years old now so I’m not sure if it’s a huge spoiler to delve into some initial plot points. After stopping rogue Spectre Saren Arterius from destroying the seat of galactic government and his army of evil A.I. known as the Geth, Commander Shephard is “killed” when a ship from a race known as the Collectors destroys his vessel, the Normandy. Commander Shephard is brought back to life by the pro-human splinter group known as Cerberus and tasked by its leader, the Illusive Man (Martin fucking Sheen), with discovering the nature of the Collector threat to humanity as well as come up with proof that a race of sentient machines known as the Reapers are on their way to wipe out all of galactic civilization. The game is the second in a trilogy and focuses on your attempts to build a team to stop the combined Collector/Reaper threat.
If you can’t tell from the assorted screenshots gathered here, Mass Effect 2 is a gorgeous game. Although facial animations (even in gorgeous games like Final Fantasy XIII or Heavy Rain) will always be ruined for me now because of the phenomenal work in L.A. Noire, this game’s use of lighting and color is — dare I say it — cinematic in scope. The humans are impressive if not the most realistic in gaming (I’m now playing Uncharted 3 as a break between this and Mass Effect 3 and it’s really setting a bar for overall graphical fidelity) but boy do the alien species look amazing. Whether it’s the salamandar-esque Salarians, the more humanoid but just as amphibuous Drell, or the impossible to describe in animal terms Turiand and Krogan, all of the alien species pass the uncanny valley tests that the human characters sadly fail.
I also hope that the broad plot description above didn’t sound too dull or cliche. The Mass Effect franchise is famous for its mature and philosophical storytelling. Over the course of your nearly 40 hour adventure, you will be faced with choices where what is right and what is wrong is almost never clear. In the first game, you had to choose which one of two crew mates (one potentially being your lover) would have to die to save the galaxy. Here your decisions are just as tough. Do you kill a daughter because she refuses to live by the code set for her by her mother and Asari society (and also kills because she’s genetically coded to)? Do you convince a scientist that his role in sterilizing a species was wrong even though his actions clearly saved trillions of lives? Do you effectively brainwash and pacify a sentient machine race or destroy them? You face decisions like that the entire game.
There were many cries of “Foul!” when Mass Effect 2 was initially released because it toned down many of the RPG elements of the first game to instead make the sequel a choice-driven third person shooter with RPG elements. It was the right call. Combat in the game is smooth and satisfying, and you never feel like you lost a fight because of a poor roll of the dice (which was far too common in the original). The guns handle smoothly and with a healthy selection of powers, you have plenty of ways to attack a situation (though you may come to rely on a few key abilities). Your allies’ A.I. is competent (if not amazing) and the enemy does its best to flank and outmaneuver you although patience is as much the key to victory as twitch shooting ability. Getting rid of the horrid inventory system and the clunky shooting did not harm Mass Effect 2 in the slightest.
Not every aspect of the game (before I get into the porting issues) was perfect though. In order to get the best ending for the game (one where all of your teammates survive), you have to upgrade your ship. In order to purchase these upgrades, you have to farm materials through a boring and usually infuriating mini-game that continually slows down the momentum of the game. As wonderful as the individual stories are for the team members you acquire — which you deepen through loyalty missions and conversations between levels –, the actual main story is far more hit or miss. The Collectors and Reapers pose a grand existential threat to the universe, but the blandness of fighting a race of evil aliens as opposed to a clearly defined bad guy (like Saren in the first game) robs some of the impact and directness that the original’s plot had.
The game simply has one of the greatest casts in the medium. I put it in the same league as Final Fantasy X (which I think wins the title hands down) as well as games such as Persona 4 and the Metal Gear Solid universe. One of my biggest problems with the first game was that the main story was phenomenal but far too many of your crew mates felt poorly fleshed out. In Mass Effect 2, you should leave the game feeling as if you know Mordin, Tali, Thane, Jack, Miranda, or anyone else in your party as well as some of your less close friends in real life. They’ll make you laugh. They might make you cry (poor, poor Tali), and sometimes they’ll make you do both at the same time. You don’t know funny until you’ve seen a Salarian doing a modified bit of Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s comedy gold. How close you become to your supporting players really adds to the drama that any of them can die (for real and be therefore dead in Mass Effect 3) by the time the game closes.
Now with the real issues. The PS3 port is just a hot mess. Mostly, it can be inconsequential stuff like audio. Sentences will seemingly clip off mid-sentence (and if you don’t have the subtitles on, you’re fucked as far as knowing how the sentence ends). There will be no background noise during important cut-scenes. People’s lip-syncing will be obviously off. These don’t disrupt the gameplay itself, but it reminds you that you’re playing a game and not actually embarking on a grand science fiction quest. Other issues are more problematic. The framerate will drop to absurdly low levels. Enemies and players will clip through the environment. Occasionally the game will bug and keep you from finishing a mission and you have to reload. The texture pop-in is really bad (which might have been an issue on the PC too. I don’t remember). All in all, I noticed a million technical bugs on the PS3 that I just never encountered when I first beat the game on the PC.
It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed games and I think I’ve lost my knack for it. It took me probably a year before I began to really feel proud of my movie reviews and it’s been nearly that long since I’ve touched games. Obviously, I have some work to do to improve. Thankfully, I’m going to make sure I keep practicing. If you have the chance to play the game on the PC or 360, you definitely should. Not only can you actually play the first game (instead of the interactive comic book at the beginning of this one on the PS3 to make key choices), but the game simply plays better. I would give the PC version of this game a 9.75. It’s as close to perfect as you can get without actually getting there. However, the Ps3 version of the game has enough flaws to at least partially lower the score but not enough to dissuade you from playing this phenomenal game if you don’t have another system to play it on.
Final Score: A-